In the summer of 2021, I picked up World In Between: Based on a True Refugee Story by Kenan Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro—a middle-grade version of their previous adult book The Bosnia List. I then set the book aside and never got around to reading it, until now. With ever more horrifying events in Ukraine unfolding every day and refugees on their way to my own English village as I write this, it felt more important than ever to try to understand how it feels to be in their shoes, and there is no better way to do that than by reading books written by those who have lived through the experience.
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Trigger Warnings: War, gun violence, concentration camps, genocide, religious bigotry, animal death, slurs.
Part middle-grade novel, part author’s memoir, World in Between is set between 1992 and 1994 and tells the author’s story. Kenan was an eleven-year-old soccer-obsessed Muslim boy who, until March 1992, had lived happily in the town of Brčko in Bosnia before becoming a refugee from the Bosnian genocide. The book is written in three parts. In Part One: Losing Home, Kenan begins to sense changes around him. Small at first, he begins to notice that his former friends will no longer play with him, and some neighbors speak cruelly. A riot happens at a football match in a nearby city that his older brother Eldin is attending, and his parents become increasingly stressed as TV news reports describe bombings and arson attacks against Bosnian Muslims. As the situation intensifies, Kenan’s mother wants to leave, but his father—a well-respected man in the town—refuses to believe that things will really get that bad or that those around the family will turn on them, and insists that they stay put. Within weeks, the family finds themselves sheltering in their building with no water or food as bombs rain down outside. Even Kenan’s favorite teacher has turned against them and he threatens Kenan with a gun in the street. With considerable difficulty, the family plans an escape.
Part Two: Stuck in Limbo sees the family living as refugees in Vienna where many people from their country have fled. This is by far the shortest part with only a few chapters but shows how confusing life as a refugee is—especially at the beginning. Kenan and his family have no idea what to do or where to go now they have escaped Bosnia, and are entirely reliant on government handouts and local goodwill, something they all struggle with. Finally, in Part Three: Searching for Home, the family moves to the USA where Kenan still lives today. Initially housed in a spare room, the family feels lost and considers themselves a burden. However, with the support of the community, they begin to make friends have new experiences. Kenan’s love of soccer allows him to find common ground to communicate with others and, although he will always carry the scars of living through a war, he begins to accept and at times enjoy his new life halfway around the world.
World in Between is a heartbreaking story at times but is also filled with hope. It’s terrifying to see how quickly a typical Western town of the type most of us grew up in can be transformed into a warzone—something we’ve all seen unfolding in real-time on TV this month—and it’s also difficult to read Kenan’s thoughts as he fails to grasp the longevity of his situation, imagining that he’ll soon be able to return to his home and things will go back to normal. We experience the frustrations of his parents, both well-educated and respected citizens in Bosnia but now forced to take on work cleaning and babysitting or working in fast food stores due to language barriers and lack of training in their new country. It’s also difficult to read about the people who took advantage of his family when they were at their lowest, such as a woman who steals all the donations made for them by the local community.
However, despite all this, World in Between is at its heart a hopeful book. Kenan’s family is constantly helped by others. Neighbors risk their own safety to help them in Bosnia, strangers help them to escape to Austria, and communities in both Austria and the USA rally to provide transport, housing, and countless other necessities in their new homes. It’s a reminder of just how important that help and support are at a time when the world, unfortunately, needs to be rallying once again to help a new wave of refugees.
World in Between is not an easy book to read, but I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to better understand what life is like for refugees, and especially for parents with younger readers asking questions about the current crisis in Ukraine. The writing style explores a very difficult topic sensitively, not shying away from the true horrors of war but avoiding language that might traumatize young readers. For anyone wanting more, you can also pick up The Bosnia List which tells the same story for an adult audience and also covers Kenan’s trip to visit his homeland after two decades in the U.S.
GeekMom received a copy of this title for review purposes.